‘Sherlock’ Recap (Series 2, Episode 1): She’s Always The Woman To Me
Britain’s favorite consulting detective returns to American PBS stations for the second series premiere of Sherlock, to tangle with his mysterious new foe: The Woman.
If it seems like Sherlock has been gone from our screens for a long time, that’s because it has. The first season of Sherlock hit US screens in October of 2010, and even this current batch of episodes is a distant memory to those who watched it, legally or illegally, when it aired in the UK in January.
In any case, when we last left our intrepid detective and his Boswell, they were caught in a stalemate with Moriarty down by the local swimming pool. Guns pointed everywhere, a bomb about to blow… not a good situation. But it’s resolved quite neatly when Holmes and Watson are rescued at the last second by a phone call, which Moriarty receives from a mysterious female someone. The ringtone, appropriately, is “Staying Alive.”
Given that the title os this episode is “A Scandal in Belgravia,” any Sherlockian worth his or her deerstalker cap will surmise that the woman is The Woman. Irene Adler figured prominently in the first ever Holmes short story, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” and although she never crossed paths with Holmes thereafter in the canon, popular interpretations of Holmes have tended to portray her as Holmes’s primary romantic interest (although the original story explicitly denies that he has the hots for her).
In fact, in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” she’s not even a criminal, but rather an opera singer, in possession of an incriminating photo of the King of Bohemia. The King hires Holmes to recover the photo, and thinking he can easily outwit any woman, Holmes gets to work infiltrating Adler’s home to ascertain the location of the photo. He does this by faking a fire and observing her behavior, noting that in a crisis a woman will always feel the urge to protect her most precious possession (typically a baby or item of jewelry). Using this logic, Holmes correctly guesses the location of the photo, but Adler, clever enough to realize that the great detective is onto her, is able to swap the photo out for a decoy and flee the country. She leaves a letter explaining all this and saying that she needs the photo not for blackmail but for protection. Holmes, realizing he’s been beaten, keeps the decoy photo as an eternal reminder that a woman outsmarted him.
“Belgravia’s” first half sticks pretty close to the same plot, at least in general outline. Months pass after the standoff at the pool, and Holmes grows famous as Watson blogs about his cases. Eventually, Holmes’s brother Mycroft brings him to Buckingham palace. The government requires his services, but this time, it’s not the King of Bohemia but an unnamed member of the British Royal Family–and a female at that. And this Adler’s not a soprano, but a dominatrix. And of course, in true Sherlock fashion, the photograph has been swapped out for a camera phone full of them.
When Sherlock and John visit Adler’s home, she’s expecting them, and receives Sherlock completely nude. Which is kind of ridiculous, yes, but I swear there’s a point! Intimidation for starters, but even beyond that, because Sherlock’s constantly deducing things from people’s clothes, the naked Adler is a mystery to him. That is, except for the password to her safe, which is her measurements. While Sherlock and Adler match wits, American agents barge in and demand the phone with the compromising images. Things don’t go to well for the agents, who get disarmed, or Sherlock, who gets drugged. He wakes up back at home, finding that Adler has gotten away, and as a prank, she’s set up his phone so that whenever she texts him, it will play a sound that your closed captions, should you turn them on, will refer to as [EROTIC MOAN TEXT ALERT].
So that’s our adaptation of the original story done with, but there’s plenty more to go. Months later at Christmas, while Sherlock is being cruel to guests (especially Molly), Adler is found dead after sending Sherlock her (locked) phone for safekeeping. Later still, she reveals she faked her death and goes to Holmes for protection from the American and British agents who are after her. She explains that, in addition to naughty pictures, her phone contains a code stolen from the Ministry of Defense. Her best cryptographers can’t crack it, but Holmes quickly realizes it’s not a code at all: it’s an airplane seat allocation for a flight leaving Heathrow the following day. As Holmes attempts to discern the significance of this flight, Adler surreptitiously texts Moriarty. Moriarty then sends a text to Mycroft, gloating he is now aware of the Ministry of Defense’s plan for this flight.
Sherlock surmises that this plane is the intended target of a terrorist attack of which the British government has been made aware. Recalling one of Mycroft’s phone conversations, in which he referred to the Coventry Blitz, Sherlock muses that there have long been rumors that the British government allowed the Nazis to bomb Coventry unimpeded, so as to avoid revealing to the Germans that they had successfully cracked German code. Sherlock concludes that, much like Coventry, the British and American governments plan to let the terrorist attack happen.
When Mycroft’s men bring Holmes to the airport, he learns that he’s correct, except for one detail–the plane has no passengers. It’s full of corpses, so there will be no actual casualties from the attack. This plan was was years in the making, but Sherlock ruined it by allowing Adler to tip Moriarty off. Mycroft berates his brother, and Adler comes in to gloat about how thoroughly she beat Sherlock. Plus she reveals that her whole plan was concocted by Moriarty just to cause trouble for the Holmeses. Adler makes some demands in exchange for her continued assurance that she will not reveal the confidential information in her phone. It seems Holmes has lost, until he reveals that, in spite of what Adler says, he could tell from the physical signs of her body that she had feelings for him. From this he deduces that the password on her phone is S-H-E-R, making the screen read:
I AM / S-H-E-R / LOCKED. Get it?
This gives him access to the material in her phone, removing her leverage, giving the government no reason to protect her, and making it likely that she will be killed by her enemies very soon.
More months pass, and Moriarty informs Watson that Irene Adler has been beheaded by Pakistani terrorists. Under Mycroft’s advice, Watson misinforms Sherlock that Adler is safe under witness protection in America. As a memento, Sherlock keeps Adler’s camera phone. He reviews her history of text messages, seeing that the final message to him said “Goodbye Mr. Holmes.” A flashback shows that she texts this to him just as a masked terrorist holds a sword to her throat…
And suddenly: [EROTIC MOAN TEXT ALERT]
The man with the sword is Sherlock, who rescues her, triumphantly ending the episode.
As I mentioned earlier, it’s pretty commonplace for Holmes adaptations to give additional prominence to Irene Adler beyond what Conan Doyle had envisioned. And given what we know about Steven Moffat’s tendencies as a writer, there was no reason to expect that he would hesitate in taking the character further than she was designed to go.
But in the four months since this episode aired in the UK, Moffat has taken no small amount of flak for the way in which he chose to expand Adler’s role. His harshest critics have accused his Adler of displaying gender politics even more regressive then the 1891 original. While both Conan Doyle’s and Moffat’s Adlers are intelligent, strong women, Conan Doyle’s outwits Sherlock and gains his admiration through her powers of reasoning, while Moffat’s version uses sex as a weapon and is ultimately undone by her crush on Sherlock (despite identifying as gay).
I think this is a bit simplistic in its view of Moffat’s Adler, and while I don’t want to imply that his treatment of Adler in particular–or his female characters in general–is entirely unproblematic, It’s worth noting that Holmes is no less obsessed by Adler than she is by him. And the characters who know Holmes best often remark how extraordinary it is that the unflappable Sherlock has been, well, flapped. They’re treated primarily as equals, and the fact that Sherlock bests her in the end is a matter of happenstance: as Sherlock admits, he nearly doesn’t.
And as far as Adler’s identifying as gay, but then being literally brought to her knees as a result of her infatuation with Sherlock–well, how much do we really need to say about the issues the characters on this show have regarding their own sexual orientations? Do we really want to open up that can of worms?
It’s been rightly noted that while the original Adler is just an opera singer who happens to butt heads with Holmes on one occasion, Moffat’s version becomes more thoroughly entangled with Sherlock to the extent that her entire life seems to revolve around him by the end. Essentially, she’s a strong female character who’s now been redefined in relation to a man. This is fair enough, and it’s a criticism that’s applied to lots of Moffatt’s female characters, notably River Song from Doctor Who.
Again, I don’t want to claim that this is entirely unproblematic from a gender standpoint, particularly regarding Adler’s apparent reliance on Moriarty. But I do think that Adler’s far from the only character that Moffatt has gently nudged into orbit around Holmes. Moriarty and Mycroft have both been re-envisioned in such ways that their entire lives are drawn in by the gravity of our leading man. Even Watson, who we remember primarily as Holmes’s loyal sidekick, was given a robust career and a family life by Conan Doyle, but denied the same by Moffat–explicitly because of his relationship with Sherlock. You’ll find the same patterns on Doctor Who: when Moffat took the reigns of that show from Russell T Davies he denied the Doctor’s companions Amy and Rory any kind of life at all beyond the Doctor’s influence.
We can debate the implications of this “one man at the center of everything” vision all day. Clearly it relies pretty heavily on the protagonist’s privileged status (which is probably one reason the Doctor has never been a woman, or black, or an alien). But the fact is that this particular kind of story is what Moffat seems to do best, and here in “A Scandal in Belgravia” he’s cranked it up to eleven. Even before I sat down and picked this story apart, it just felt like the most “Moffat-esque” tale ever committed to film. It’s dramatic, emotional, epic, and clever, whatever problems it might have.
There’s a through-line to Sherlock’s second series: it takes the most famous stories from the Holmes canon–“A Scandal in Bohemia,” “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” and “The Final Problem”–and makes them bigger, sexier, scarier, more emotional, more dramatic, and more action-packed. More, more, more, bigger, bigger, bigger. And on that account it’s certainly succeeding. Moffat’s vision of Sherlock Holmes isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, and this is probably the most divisive episode yet. But for those still on board it’s a hell of a ride. The game, as they say, is afoot.
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